Faced with the reality of losing a 2-0 set lead to Paul Laurence Dunbar in the 43rd District Tournament on Wednesday, Tates Creek relied on a stout defense and perseverance to defeat the Bulldogs 3-1 (25-15, 25-19, 13-25, 25-21) and earn its second-consecutive district crown.
Tates Creek (27-8) and Dunbar (22-12) both advance to the 11th Regional Tournament.
In front of a packed house at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the Commodores continued their dominance over their district rival during the first two sets. After sweeping Dunbar in September, Tates Creek once again jumped out ahead of Dunbar 2-0, this time behind five kills from junior Doris Carter.
The NC State commit dominated the set, imposing her will as she battled with Dunbar's Leah Edmund.
"She's a great athlete," Tates Creek head coach Sara Chaffin said of Carter. "She's a true competitor, and she plays hard when we need it the most. That's what she did tonight. She knows when to step up her game. That's exactly what she did."
The Bulldogs struggled throughout the night to breach the front-line duo of senior Julia Loveday and junior Lindsey Wilkins. The two entered the game with a combined 105 blocks and routinely rerouted Dunbar's attacks. Chaffin made it an emphasis to focus on blocking heading into the championship game and the added attention paid off.
"We really worked on blocking this week," Chaffin said. "Our blockers did some technical practice and they applied it in the game and we made adjustments in the game. I couldn't be more proud."
The defining moment for Chaffin was the back-to-back solo blocks by first-year varsity player and sophomore Claire Darland.
"She had those back-to-back solo blocks off Lead (Edmund), and that was a game changer for us," Chaffin said.
Tates Creek needed a game changer, as Dunbar started to impose its will in the third set. With its back to the wall, the Bulldogs adjusted and blew through the Commodores defense en route to a 25-13 set win. Tates Creek never led in the set and fell back by as many as 12 points.
"We played well the third game," Dunbar head coach Jenni Morgan said. "Across the board you have two teams that are going to battle every single time they come out, and it's a matter of who gets who on a given night. Tates Creek is a very good team and played well tonight."
The issue for Dunbar, however, was after finding rhythm in the third set, the Bulldogs struggled in the fourth set to maintain consistency. As Morgan noted, it was a few mistakes that crept up and halted any Dunbar rally
That inability set the stage for a back-and-forth fourth set that was tied four times. Tates Creek struggled to pull ahead and fell back by as many as three points at various times throughout the set, but the Commodores finally broke through at 21-20 after Carter notched a kill off a failed Dunbar block, earning their first lead since the second set.
"We went into the fourth set and said 'hey, here's what they're doing, here's what we need to do,' and the girls did it," Chaffin said.
Tates Creek ultimately won the set after Dunbar's return soared off the court, ending a thrilling and highly contested match.
"For us, this is just proving that Tates Creek is a solid volleyball program, and there's a lot of pride in our school," Chaffin said. "The girls are getting volleyball hyped in their school, and it's great."